One of the lesser-known benefits of having a sniper’s eyes – or, at least, Clint Barton’s eyes, which, he has it on good authority, are admittedly better than the average sniper’s – is that your focus isn’t just unwaveringly sharp and clearer from a distance, but also a lot quicker than any other person’s. That is, you learn to pinpoint moving objects very fast, and, in Clint’s case, you are able to remember any detail of a scene after seeing it for a mere fraction of a second.
The first time this had come up in an assessment of Clint’s abilities, Phil had said he had an eidetic memory. Clint had protested the notion, initially, because an eidetic memory was a thing for geniuses, people like the young Scottish engineer in R&D who could draw the most intricate of machines after having had just the briefest look at it. And it didn’t matter how high Clint’s scores at the Academy or the praise on his second PhD dissertation had been, he was still no genius in any sense of the word. Phil had given him an odd look when he’d said that. Clint didn’t like being on that side of Phil’s odd looks, so he’d dropped the subject.
In the end, Clint had stopped arguing about the specifics and gone back to focusing on the advantages that his eyes gave him in the field. After all, he wouldn’t have been able to corner the Black Widow without hurting her if he hadn’t remembered exactly where the last shards of porcelain from Phil’s incident with the tea set the day before were lying.
Anyway, all this means that when he enters May’s office and spots the file she’s poring over – the one that’s definitely not a personnel file, or any of her usual HR stuff –, it doesn’t really help much that she snatches it away as quickly as she can and slips it into her desk drawer (the drawer in which she kept Phil’s post-it notes, the cheesy, brightly-colored ones that aren’t coming anymore, and fuck, the thought hurts, the thought still hurts every time it hits him). Sure, she’s got impressively quick reflexes – better than anyone else at SHIELD beside Natasha, if he’s honest –, but Clint has already had plenty of time to notice that May was looking at the specs for the internal layout of a plane.
Which would be unusual enough to unsettle him, these days, even if it wasn’t for the fact that Melinda clearly wanted him to see it.
Because Melinda knows pretty much everything about Clint’s eyes and what they can do. She’d taken full advantage of his abilities just a few months after the beginning of their meringue-based partnership, when she’d absent-mindedly left a certain handler’s file on her desk just to quickly snatch it away as soon as Clint crossed the threshold. Phil’s file had been more than half covered by a folder, of course, but Clint had been able to catch a good glimpse of the date of birth – and even though he’d really have appreciated being given more than a week’s warning to get him a present (because you don’t just find a good Captain America travel mug anywhere on the internet, or, at least, the good ones weren’t as common as they became after Steve Rogers was retrieved from the ice, despite what people nowadays might think), he’d made sure to thank May by adding a strawberry and coconut cupcake to his next delivery of sweets.
So, Clint thinks he’s safe to assume that May expected him to see the plane specs. Which just leaves it up to him to figure out why, because Melinda doesn’t look like she’s going to help. Considering Clint’s current position at SHIELD, even though a year has passed since the Battle of New York, the archer can’t really blame her for being extra careful in slipping him information about anything.
Now, if he could just have an idea of what this specific case of anything is about.
The plane specs are still on May’s desk two weeks later. This time, Clint gets a good look (that is, a half-second glimpse) at the layout before the wad of papers disappears. Apparently, SHIELD’s new 616 aircraft can take off vertically, and is equipped to carry a team of six agents. Judging from the number of various accessories in the living quarters, said agents are meant to spend a lot of time on the plane.
Which means that the 616 was built (or is going to be built – after all, Clint didn’t get any information about what stage the project is at) with a mobile team in mind. It shouldn’t be surprising. A first-response unit of this kind had been on Fury’s mind for a long time, before the Avengers Initiative took priority over everything else.
It had been on Phil’s mind for a long time. It was Phil’s idea.
Clint is suddenly, irrationally angry at Fury for stealing Phil’s project now that Phil is dead. Not that he can do anything about it. He can, however, do his best to try and understand why May thought he needed to see the specs for the new plane, and why she’s obviously taking pains not to let anyone know he’s been informed.
Clint ponders about what he saw for the next two weeks, which end up turning into three, courtesy of a mutant mini-kraken attack in Portland. Because apparently this kind of things is his routine now. It doesn’t help that the Avengers get shipped out to Portland, of all places, or that Sitwell discreetly slips Clint a ticket for the Oregon Symphony as soon as the fight ends and takes care to inform everyone that they aren’t going to leave until the next morning.
He goes to the concert, pointedly avoids looking at the cello section, and pretends that the persistent stinging in his eyes is due to the music. After all, no one could deny that Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is hauntingly sad. He debates going to say hello to Audrey after the performance. He’s almost decided against it when she settles the debate by catching up with him in the foyer. This kind of no-nonsense attitude had been one of the reasons why Clint had liked her immediately, all the way back when Phil introduced them. She doesn’t hug him, doesn’t ask how he’s doing, just thanks him for coming and takes his hand in hers for a moment. Her grip is steady, palms dry and callused from the cello, just as he remembered them from their first meeting.
At their first meeting, Phil was there, his smile so bright (and, honestly, just this side of goofy) that Clint couldn’t stop staring, even if he knew it was going to make him feel even more embarrassed. When Audrey had asked why he looked so much like the happy idiot he was (see? No nonsense. He liked her), Phil had answered that it was because one didn’t often get to see their boyfriend and long-distance best friend get along so well together.
When Clint gets back to the hotel Sitwell has picked for the Avengers’ night in town, Natasha is waiting in his room. He slips into her hug without even a token resistance, and after a while he stops pretending that he isn’t crying.
Anyway, Clint is just one Wednesday late for his next meringue appointment with May. As soon as he rounds the corner of Melinda’s cubicle, a thick wad of papers disappears from her desk.
This time, Clint almost doesn’t get to look at it long enough to realize what it is. Admittedly, a list of SHIELD’s R&D personnel isn’t that unusual a thing for Melinda to work on. Okay, maybe a little. Maybe the fact that she was marking names in blue highlighter should give him some clues about what’s going on.
Clint makes small talk, cracks a couple of jokes about Sitwell’s complicated relationship with seafood (especially when said seafood is the size of a small submarine and has swum all the way up the Columbia river just to try and crush him with a tentacle, or so Jasper said, at least), waits for Melinda to finish polishing off the meringues, and goes back to the Tower to think.
Not that it is especially hard to figure out what’s going on. Melinda May has the specs for a plane and is working on a list of crew members. Melinda May is helping start a team.
Melinda May looks unusually frustrated when, two weeks later, she hides the same wad of papers with the names from R&D. Clint can see that she’s started crossing out candidates. Too many of them, he guesses, judging from the fact that all the four names she’d highlighted on the front page now have a big fat NO scrawled at their side (in lime green permanent marker – classy). Not even Clint’s special delivery of meringues dipped in dark chocolate manages to cheer her up entirely.
“I broke my bow last week,” Clint says conversationally, leaning against her desk.
“Must have hurt.” By now, Clint knows when Melinda is teasing him. Most of the time. Right now, she isn’t teasing. She knows how much Clint values his bow.
If her deadpan tone is a little too close to the one Phil used for comfort, well, Clint supposes it’s no one else’s problem but his own. Certainly not Melinda’s. She needs the reminder about as much as he does, after all.
“Yep.” He makes the p pop in that annoying way of his, to cover for the way he has to swallow around the sudden lump in his throat. “Didn’t last long, though. R&D did an excellent job of fixing it, for once. FitzSimmons even gave me new arrow prototypes as compensation.”
May raises an eyebrow. “There’s no Fitzsimmons in R&D.”
“Sure there is. And they’re damn good, too. Best prototype arrows I’ve ever had. Said it was the least they could do, but I think they’re just having too much fun designing them. Those two are a menace. I hope no one is ever so stupid to think they can take them apart.”
May hums, and shifts the conversation to the merits of dark versus milk chocolate ganache.
Two weeks later, two filled forms with Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons’ names on top disappear from Melinda’s desk as soon as Clint walks in. The next time he manages to visit – after four weeks and a mission in Myanmar that turned out to be a complete clusterfuck about ten minutes from the start –, it’s the turn of a freshly-filed 68-13D, and Clint finds himself wondering why, exactly, Grant Ward’s advancement from Level 6 to 7 should concern him.
Except from the fact that Hill signed that form. Which means that she was the one who vetted Ward. Maria Hill doesn’t waste her time managing this kind of things since she was promoted Deputy Director, at least.
It makes sense, after all. It’s Fury’s pet project (which he stole from Phil, and Clint doesn’t think he can get over that anytime soon, to be honest). It’s just reasonable that he wants only people he trusts to work on it – people like Maria, or Melinda, for that matter. Still, Hill being responsible for a field team doesn’t make sense – it’s extremely unlikely that Fury will agree to send her away from HQ, and with an experimental mobile first-response unit, no less.
Which just leaves Clint with three questions. One, what the hell is a team with a specialist and two genius technicians supposed to do. Two, why does May ostensibly think he should be concerned about all this – especially since by calling Ward they’ve just ruled out the most obvious explanation, that Clint was going to be directly involved.
The third question is who will be the man in charge.
The uneasy feeling in Clint’s stomach coalesces into an ugly lump of dread and anger and irrational hope two weeks later, when the form that May hides from his view is no less than her own A6-121. It’s already stamped with Fury’s personal seal of approval.
May is transferring back into the field. As a pilot, no less.
May wouldn’t go back into the field for just anyone. Not even if she got a whole new aircraft to play with. Not even when said aircraft is a huge jet that can take off vertically.
There’s just one person Melinda May would go back into the field for. Which is why said person never asked her to do that – because he knew she’d say yes, even if it was going to hurt her.
Said person has been dead for the last fifteen months.
Clint refuses to believe what his mind is telling him. He leaves May’s office as soon as he can, and all but runs to the range. Nat has to come get him at three in the morning. She doesn’t ask.
Clint doesn’t tell her anything. If he’s wrong, he can at least spare her the pain of hoping. He can’t not be wrong. This kind of things just doesn’t happen, not even in their lives.
For two weeks, he burns most of his energies trying to compartmentalize. It’s a hopeless struggle, he knows. Even Tony ends up asking him if anything’s wrong. He manages to shrug it off, but it’s a near thing. Natasha knows he’s on to something, but she trusts him enough that she doesn't pry. Clint loves her very much.
He misses his next Wednesday appointment again, because of another emergency in Chicago. This time, however, he doesn’t wait for a week. He drops by May’s office on Thursday afternoon, trying to keep the murderous expression off his face. He has a feeling he’s failing. He gets confirmation when Melinda’s lips quirk upwards as soon as she sees him. Then she shuffles the stack of papers on her desk just so.
The form that peeks out from the bottom of the stack is a 42-14E. Clint knows what that is, because he had to file one of those once, after an undercover mission had gone horribly wrong and he’d had to let everyone believe he’d been made out and killed for six whole weeks.
In retrospect, Phil’s face when he’d got back had been the last thing Clint needed to put his own feelings together. Then Phil had slapped the 42-14E in front of him and said, “It takes a lot of paperwork to bring an agent back from the dead, Barton. Which is why I’d very much prefer if my agents didn’t die in the first place.” He’d almost managed to make his voice sound like his usual post-mission ennui as he spoke. Also, his complaints about paperwork might have been more believable if a 42-14E wasn’t actually the only form required in order to rectify the registered death of an agent. And didn’t it say interesting things about life at SHIELD that they didn’t have a simple and straightforward procedure to request new arrows from R&D, but they did have one to efficiently reinstate agents who came back from the dead.
Still, Clint is pretty sure that the above-mentioned form 42-14E is not supposed to show up fifteen months after the date of the agent’s death that’s stamped on the first line, and the name written under that line definitely isn’t supposed to end in -LSON.
And yet, it does.
If Clint doesn’t drop the plate with the meringues, it’s only because May locks eyes with him as she efficiently rights up the stack of forms. Her gaze says no, and dangerous, and, somehow, I trust you not to make a mess of this, Clint Barton. It’s the same gaze that Clint has seen in Phil’s eyes so many times during a mission. He’s never been able not to comply.
“Thanks,” Melinda says as she bites into the first meringue. “I’m glad you came. I’ll, ah, admit I was a bit disappointed when you didn’t show up yesterday.”
Clint is honestly surprised that he still has a voice to speak with, even if it comes out unsteady. “Sorry. Pink alien cats attacked.” Well, they’d looked like cats, at least. “Perils of the job.”
“I guess. Anyway, you wouldn’t have found me here next Wednesday. We – I’m leaving in five days.”
“Congratulations,” Clint says. May smiles. There’s a smudge of sugary powder at the corner of her lips. “Melinda?”
May looks up. They both know that Clint never calls her by her first name out loud, just as she never uses his. First names are a thing for Coulson only, and in Clint’s case, Natasha. “Yes?”
“I’d very much like to hug you before you go.”
Melinda May isn’t the kind of person who likes hugs. She stands up and nods anyway. Clint’s touch is firm, and his grip doesn’t make her feel trapped. He makes sure that she’s facing the security camera in the corner of the office before his fingers on her shoulder spell out, THANKS, in Morse code.
The lobby at the Hub is crowded, and also a place Melinda May wasn’t at all surprised to find out she didn’t miss. She doesn’t like having to come back, and from the look on his face, neither does Phil. FitzSimmons, on the other hand, are delighted. Their excited chatter with Skye carries up to May’s ears, and even without turning around she’s sure that Ward is listening and smiling as well. None of them is worried about why Victoria Hand called the team in, which just tells Melinda how clueless the little ducklings are about the power dynamics between Level 8 agents.
If anyone ever dares to remark on how she’s started to call the rest of the team little ducklings in her head, she’s breaking their kneecaps.
“Hey, Agent May!” Shane, one of the agents at the lobby’s front desk, is an old acquaintance. “We’ve got something for you.”
Which is, well, interesting, to say the least, since no one was supposed to know they were flying in. As Melinda stops in her tracks and makes a beeline for the desk, she can see Phil’s hands twitch at his sides. Phil’s tells have gotten increasingly obvious since – since New York, and what happened afterwards. Melinda wonders if she should be worried, or if anyone else should, then quickly dismisses the thought. It leaves a bitter flavor in her mouth all the same.
While she’s having her silent little crisis over her loyalty to Phil (which would be more amusing if it didn’t happen pretty much on a daily basis), Shane bends down to pick up a plate from below the desk. It’s covered with a purple paper napkin. Scrawled over it are the words, permission to share, if you want, followed by a smiley face.
Melinda peels back the napkin with a care she would deny under the threat of torture.
“Meringues?” If disbelief were a liquid, Skye’s tone would be dripping with it right now. “Someone’s giving Agent Scary Badass meringues. Really.”
Melinda May smiles. “Of course. They’re delicious. Want one?” she answers as she turns back towards the team, shamelessly taking the first bite.
The look on Phil’s face is a blend of at least half a dozen different expressions. Every single one of them is worth it.